Scientific Models, Art Meet in New Exhibition

The gallery space at Cambridge University's Kettle's Yard is packed with math whizzes and avid knitters, all here to see Daina Taimina's work: misshapen neon masses of crocheted wool that look like supersized cabbages. But these curious shapes aren't expressionist reflections of the artist's emotions or abstractions of real-world objects, they're mathematical models used to visualize aspects of non-Euclidean hyperbolic geometry. "Hyperbolic geometry scrambles most computers," says Taimina, a Cornell University professor whose creations are currently also showing in New York and will travel to London's Hayward Gallery this summer. "That's why the crochet hook is better than the machine. MIT has one [of the models] to help with research into the information capacity of the brain, a very hyperbolic space."

Taimina's work is part of a new exhibition at Kettle's Yard, "Beyond Measure: Conversations Across Art and Science" (through June 1). "It's about the common ground between the scientist's lab, the thinker's study and the artist's studio," says curator Barry Phipps, who hopes to challenge the assumption that artistic expression and empirical analysis are at odds. "[Both are] all about experimentation and exploration of the world around us."

The white walls of the gallery are filled with contemporary art and scientific models, deftly intermingled so that it's sometimes hard to tell from afar which is which. Sketches by Stephen Hawking's world-renowned tutor, Sir Roger Penrose, sit next to installation works by young British sculptor Conrad Shawcross, the toast of the art scene and a favorite of Charles Saatchi and celebrity art lovers. "Conrad knows about mathematical theory," says Phipps. "He knew he was creating torus knots in his work. His works are functioning machines without a purpose. They challenge our ideas of rationality." The young sculptor has crossed into scientific territory in the past, with shows such as "No Such Thing as One" (shown on London's Cork Street), which explored the essence of matter and the concept of time. For his part, Penrose also has art connections. His study of the "tribar"—a seemingly impossible triangular shape that has also appeared in the work of artist M. C. Escher—was so comprehensive that the shape was subsequently christened the "Penrose triangle."

Elsewhere, a model of the internal structure of glass made by Cambridge physics professor Phil Gaskell in the 1970s rests on a pedestal while its creator looks on, bemused to see his scientific creation in the context of an art gallery: "These days you'd get a computer to do it, but then it was a painstaking process. You'd do the calculations by hand." But those mind-numbing calculations and physical representations of the theoretical have paid off, as models have led to some of science's great eureka moments. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that the Nobel Prize-winning models of virus structures by the biophysicist Aaron Klug that are featured in the show—colorful constructions made using kitchen supplies, mapping pins and children's modeling kits—are just a stone's throw from Cavendish Laboratory, where James Watson and Francis Crick built their famous DNA double helix.

Similarly, some of the contemporary pieces on show seem to mimic molecular structures or play with scientific principles. The sinuous white twists of Eva Hild's ceramic sculpture "Broad Complex" wouldn't look out of place in a lab, even though it's inspired by Hild's own experiences, while Sarah Morris's painting "Goatfish" brings to mind a geographical chart, with green, brown and blue sections marked with purposeful crosses and arrows. And then there are works with specific scientific references, such as John Pickering's conic shapes. The artist has spent 40 years creating physical representations of mathematical formulas, and the works featured in "Beyond Measure" have been snapped up by an architectural firm, which hopes to use his models to inform their designs.

It's not as though connections between art and science are a recent phenomenon. Pablo Picasso and the Cubists were fascinated by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, Georges Braque's deconstructed still-lifes were inspired by the idea of a fourth dimension, and Claude Monet's sophisticated use of color suggests that he was—at least subconsciously—a very shrewd chemist. "Painters have often mixed their own pigment to create new surfaces and depth in their work, and to that extent a kind of alchemy was always at work," says Phipps, who is also artist in residence at Cambridge University's Institute of Astronomy. "There are so many conflations of art and science. It's time to look at what we share rather than nurturing the disparate, academic specialisms that never speak to each other."

Certainly Taimina's soft, inviting crocheted shapes prove you can inhabit both disciplines; she's a darling of the art world and at the same time an accomplished mathematician. And though the concepts at the heart of her work are complicated, their physical representations manage to bridge the gap between art and science, and between the theoretical and the concrete.